In the multitude of Robin Hood legends or retellings, the principal villain is usually the Sheriff of Nottingham. As Prince John’s taxman, he is the bane of the poor peasantry, the threat to Maid Marian, and the arch-nemesis whom Robin Hood must outwit time and time again.
|Robin Hood statue in Nottingham|
For Americans, the word “sheriff” can conjure up a whole set of Wild West connotations foreign to the twelfth century world. The sheriff of our imaginations wears a silver star and a ten-gallon hat and carries a six-shooter. While his job entails bringing in outlaws, those outlaws are far more likely to be rustling longhorn cattle out among the tumbleweeds than poaching deer in His Majesty’s forest. Although the title of the American sheriff is derivative from the medieval English sheriff, there are many important differences, and not just cosmetic ones.
The term sheriff in Medieval England originally came from the words “shire reeve.” Historian Elizabeth Hallam writes the shire reeve was “the person responsible for supervising the king’s estates in the shire and collecting the income from them to pay into the Exchequer.”
Besides being the taxman, the shire reeve was also the local judge. He presided over the county court, giving judgments and keeping the peace. He delivered writs to summon accusers or offenders to the royal court when a dispute was too high a matter to be resolved within the shire.
The position of shire reeve was a prestigious one and prone to corruption. Hallam writes that “many exploited the power their position gave them for their own financial gain…. [I]n 1170, Henry [II] held inquiries into their conduct and dismissed most of them.”
The shire reeves during the reign of Henry’s son John turned out to be no better a lot. A man named Philip Mark held the position of Sheriff of Nottingham during this time, and his actions awakened such indignation that he received his own especial mention in the Magna Carta…when the nobles demanded that he be removed and forever banned from office. Philip Mark is considered by some to be a candidate for the sheriff of the legends (although interestingly, the dates which he served as sheriff—1209, 1214, and 1217—would put him after the time when Robin Hood was supposedly active).
But whether or not Philip Mark was the inspiration for the sheriff of the legends, one common thread in the medieval ballads and stories is that the Sheriff of Nottingham is nameless. His importance in the story is not so much as a historical character but as a symbol.
In her essay on the Sheriff of Nottingham, Valerie B. Johnson writes:
The sheriff of Nottingham's role in the Robin Hood legends is not glamorous—nor is his rivalry with Robin Hood particularly personal. In sum, the sheriff exists because Robin Hood needs the sheriff to exist. Without a foe who embodies local and national governmental corruption, indicating both personal failings and systemic problems, Robin Hood cannot hope to stand as a resistance figure to unjust authority.While the American sheriff of the Wild West is a symbol of law and order, the sheriff of the Robin Hood legend is a nameless symbol of corruption and tyranny.
In the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, American mythology informs us that the lawmen handed the outlaws their just deserts. But when the Sheriff of Nottingham proclaims, “Come thou forth, thou fals outlawe. Thou shall be hangyde and y-drawe,” our sympathies are entirely on the other side.
Hallam, Elizabeth, ed. The Plantagenet Chronicles. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.
Johnson, Valerie B. “The Sheriff.” The Robin Hood Project. http://d.lib.rochester.edu/robin-hood/theme/sheriff-of-nottingham (accessed December 16, 2014).